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Our Children and the Crisis in Education

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To those who are aware that I've devoted half a century to studying, writing about and teaching principles of leadership and effectiveness to executives and managers of thousands of business, government, and other organizations around the world, it might be a little surprising that I would choose to launch this blog with my thoughts about "Our Children and the Crisis in Education."

The winds of education reform are beginning to stir once again. Our collective conscience is being nudged. And there's good reason. The world has moved into one of the most profound eras of change in human history. Yet our children, for the most part, are simply not prepared for the new reality. The gap is widening. And we know it.

Parents see the chaos, the economic uncertainty, the stress and the complexity in the world, and know deep down that the traditional three "R's" -- reading, writing, and arithmetic -- are necessary, but not enough. Society's present and future needs and opportunities demand increased capacity for responsibility, creativity and tolerance of differences. Employers and business leaders need people who can think for themselves -- who can take initiative and be the solution to problems. They need people who can build trust and get along with others, and solve complex challenges in teams without much supervision. Employers and parents alike know that, for the most part, our educational system -- primary, secondary and higher -- is not designed to consistently develop and unlock these vital human capacities.

Following the election of President Barack Obama in November 2008, I was invited to Washington, D.C. to train the Obama/Bush Presidential Transition Teams in principles of effectiveness and synergistic communication. While there, President Bush invited me to meet with him in the Oval Office. We discussed many things, including the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the state of education in the U.S. I shared with him that, while I admired his belief in the need for accountability, I was deeply troubled that an almost single-minded focus on accountability may simply be pushing teachers to turn our children into better test-takers. When asked what I thought was needed, I responded, "Partnerships between schools and parents in educating the whole child, which includes developing both the character strength and the competencies required to really succeed in the 21st Century."

Historically, the family has played the primary role in educating children for life, with the school providing supplemental scaffolding to the family. When it comes to developing character strength, inner security and unique personal and interpersonal talents and skills in a child, no institution can or ever will compare with, or effectively substitute for, the home's potential for positive influence. But with the steady disintegration of the family in modern society over the last century, the role of the school in bridging the gap has become vital!

With President Obama's recent announcement of his intent to enact sweeping educational reforms and to focus on college and career readiness, I believe we face a great opportunity and a great risk. My point is perhaps best made by 19th Century author and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, who said: "For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root." The risk: continued hacking at the symptoms of our educational problems. The opportunity: strike at the root -- unlock the potential of every child to lead their life.

I'd like to illustrate this concept with a story of great hope.

In 1999, the A.B. Combs Elementary School in Raleigh, North Carolina was on the brink of being shut down as a magnet school in the Wake County public school system. (A magnet school has a unique focus that is designed to attract students from outside normal boundaries.) The school had the capacity to serve more than 800 students, yet it only had 350. Combs had the lowest test scores in the district, with only two-thirds passing end of year tests at grade level or above. Teacher morale was low. Parents were dissatisfied. Principal Muriel Summers faced an enormous challenge.

About this time, Muriel attended one of my presentations in Washington, D.C. I was teaching The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People -- a set of universal, timeless, self-evident principles common to every enduring, prospering society, organization, or family. I take no credit for these principles. I simply organized, sequenced and articulated them. These principles include 1) taking personal responsibility and initiative, 2) getting clear about what's important to you and setting goals, 3) putting those priorities first and being disciplined, 4) seeking mutual benefit in all interactions with others -- the golden rule, 5) seeking to understand others from their perspective first before making your point, 6) valuing differences and creating third-alternative solutions to problems that are better than "my way" or "your way," and 7) taking care of and renewing yourself in all four areas of life -- body, mind, heart and spirit.

During a break in my presentation, Muriel came up to me, introduced herself, looked me straight in the eye, and asked: "Dr. Covey, do you think these habits can be taught to young children?" I answered, "How young?" She said, "Five years old." I thought about it briefly, and said, "I don't know why not;" and then continued, "let me know if you ever try them out in your school."

And try she did. In the months that followed, Muriel and her team of administrators and teachers decided to create a whole new magnet theme for the school--leadership. The foundation of their approach combined the Seven Habits with quality, goal setting and measurement tools. The approach is inside-out, with the teachers and administrators learning, living and modeling the principles themselves first, and then, at the most basic level, integrating the principles into their teaching every day. There is no new curriculum. The principles of effectiveness are creatively woven by teachers into every subject -- reading, math, history, science, social studies, art, etc. From the moment they walk into the school each day until the final bell rings, the children soak in their adult leaders' belief that they are leaders of their own lives, have unique talents, and can make a difference. Each child, including those with special needs, is given a leadership role in the school: leader of greeting, leader of public speaking, leader of the school's daily news program and so forth. They love it and they thrive.

The results are quite remarkable. Over a period of six years, the number of students passing end of year tests vaulted from 67 to 97 percent. Enrollment increased to more than 800 students, with more on waiting lists. One of the most meaningful results has been the rise in student self-confidence. Discipline problems are negligible. Teachers are engaged, committed and fulfilled. Parents are involved and very satisfied -- many reporting that their children are teaching at home what they are learning at school and are having a significant positive impact on the whole family. In 2006, A.B. Combs was awarded the number one Magnet School in America. Local businesses, chambers of commerce, service organizations like the United Way and other community leaders are stepping forward to lend partnering support, financial sponsorship and other resources to keep the momentum going.

It should also be noted that A.B. Combs has achieved these results with the largest percentage of students in its district for whom English is a second language, with 52 different nationalities and 26 languages represented. Further, A.B. Combs is a Title I school, with over 40 percent of the students qualifying for free or reduced lunches.

Word of Combs' success has spread across the globe. Principals and superintendents fill the school's semiannual Leadership Day where the children showcase the school's program and guide guests to the classrooms to allow them to see for themselves the process. A handful of schools began implementing the model and produced similar results.

After a few years Muriel approached us and basically said, "Look, I've got this going with my team, but we're being overwhelmed with inquiries and interest. It's now a moral imperative for you to systematize this approach and provide access and support to schools around the world who want to do as we have done."

Sobered by her plea and inspired by her model, we responded. "The Leader in Me" process has been now been adopted in over 200 schools around the world. Each school is very unique, but all share in the spirit of A.B. Combs' mission statement: "Developing Leaders, One Child at a Time."

They, too, are achieving strong results. For example, In Alberta, Canada, Joseph Welsh Elementary is reporting that parent satisfaction with what children are being taught has improved from 67 to 98 percent. And in Guatemala, the government is using foresight to inspire all high school teens by teaching principles that will help propel them out of cyclical poverty and create new hope for the country's future.

Some adults who visit the schools at the urging of enthusiastic colleagues arrive on-site quite cynical. Some question the whole notion, saying, "It's unrealistic to think that every child can be a leader." But they miss the point, for in the Knowledge Worker Age, leadership is a choice, not a position. We don't define leadership as becoming the CEO or the few percent who will end up in big leadership positions. We are talking about leading your own life, being a leader among your friends, being a leader in your own family. Leadership, as one school put it, is doing the right thing even when no one is looking.

After spending the day with the children they come to the same realization. For they see children -- five, six, eight, 11 years old -- leading their lives with a fun, clear, "work first, play later" character ethic, a passion to make a difference in their families and the world. They see children with an extraordinary ability to work through differences and collaborate with both their peers and adults.

When I look into the eyes of the children, I see the hope of the world. As I watch the talent of the teachers and adult leaders of these schools in action, partnered with devoted parents, I see the hope of the world. Leadership is the highest of all the arts, for it is the enabling art of unlocking human potential. It is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves.

For more information on A.B. Comb's Leadership Magnet Elementary School and The Leader in Me process for schools and parents, visit www.theleaderinmebook.org.

Stephen R. Covey is an internationally respected leadership authority, author, family expert, teacher, organizational consultant, and co-founder and vice-chairman of FranklinCovey Co. He has been recognized as Time magazine's twenty-five most influential Americans. You can become a fan on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, or join his online social learning community.

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